Last week 18-year-old Austin Collier, the nephew of Alabama Secretary of Law Enforcement Spencer Collier, was appointed to the Bayou la Batre City Council, but his connection to local politics might ultimately overshadow both his age and his family tree.
On Feb. 13, Collier was appointed at a regular meeting to replace former councilwoman Jennifer Stork, who resigned last month after her business’ involvement with a city-sponsored event came into question.Collier was one of three potential nominees for Stork’s seat on the council, a trio that also included former Bayou councilman Henry Barnes and Rodger Milne. Minutes before the vote however, Barnes withdrew his name from contention and went on to throw his support behind Collier.
Though several headlines have focused on Collier’s age, the recent high school graduate’s connection to the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre — an entity the city has just concluded a lawsuit against — could be the more important storyline.
Sylvia Raley, Collier’s grandmother, is the current president of the utilities board and has been a key figure in the board’s ongoing spat with the city government.
That fairly public dispute appears to have started after Mayor Brett Dungan was denied a position as the board’s superintendent — one previously held by his predecessor, and which carries a $24,000 annual salary.
The two entities were locked in a legal battle over term limits of board members, which the City Council has appointing authority over. After the council attempted to place Jeffrey Ladnier on the five-member board last May, the utilities board sued the city over discrepancies in the interpretation of the members’ terms.
The lawsuit was settled earlier this month, with a circuit court judge ruling in favor of the city and quickly forcing the resignations of utilities board members Debra Marchand and Louis Hard, whom Ladnier replaced immediately.
Attempts to reach Dungan about the outcome and cost of litigation were initially unsuccessful.
Since the lawsuit began, the mayor’s office has confirmed its role in two reports received by the Alabama Ethics Commission that ultimately resulted in the resignation of two utilities board members, Kimberlyn Barbour and George Ramirez, both of whom inadvertently voted for themselves as City Council representatives to assume the paid position as a board member.
Those resignations paved the way for councilmembers Annette Johnson and Ida Mae Coleman to take positions on the utilities board.
On Tuesday, Feb. 11, at its first meeting with the city’s three recent appointees, Ladnier, Johnson and Coleman outvoted Raley to hire Dungan as superintendent. As Collier was appointed, Dungan was one of only two who voted against his nomination.
As for Collier himself, he tells Lagniappe he hopes to improve on some of the communication between the two entities, but said he would abstain from voting on any motion brought before the council related to the utilities board his grandmother remains a member of.
“I really won’t make any decision or vote on anything to do with the utilities board, but communication-wise, maybe we can build a bridge,” Collier said.
Because of the ongoing dispute, the teenager’s appointment has not been without some contention, as even some fellow members of the council questioned his age and family connections during Thursday’s meeting.
“This is a very serious position,” said Coleman, the second “no” vote cast against Collier. “We’re getting ready to go into a different phase of meetings, and in this phase, Rodger (Milne) has been here. He has a good character, he can make sound decisions and he doesn’t have an agenda. I can’t speak for Mr. Collier, but I know I can speak for Rodger.”
Colman, who has made many predictions about the future of Bayou la Batre, said the city’s upcoming decisions wouldn’t be easy and were “going to divide some families.”
Others on social media have also suggested the teenager’s connection to his uncle helped land him a position on the council, but Collier has been very quick to brush aside the allegations.
“None of this has anything to do with my family,” he said. “[Spencer Collier] didn’t know anything about (the appointment) until the next day. This is all about the city and trying to move forward.”
Though Spencer Collier is the top-ranking law enforcement official in the state and formerly a state representative, his nephew said the relationship didn’t have much of an impact in his interest in civics or law enforcement.
“I guess he had somewhat of an impact, but growing up I’ve always lived with Sylvia. I’ve never been that close to my dad’s side of the family,” he said.
Colliers father, Harvey Collier III, was one of several members of the extended Collier family indicted in 2013 for fraud charges related to phony collection attempts in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. However, Collier says since he was a toddler, his contact with his father’s family has been limited — including with his uncle.
A member of the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office’s Explorer Program, Collier has volunteered to help at Mardi Gras parades, fairs and other events. He’s also recently entered a cadet program with the Mobile Police Department and aspires to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Collier has been involved in local politics for more than a year now, attending each council and utilities board meeting and even taking notes.
He said conversations with his grandmother and others had almost convinced him to run for the position in 2016, but Stork’s abrupt resignation presented him with a unique opportunity.
“I was considering running maybe next year, I figured it might be good to go ahead and get involved and start helping to make decisions,” he said. “I’m there already anyway.”
Collier said for now, he plans to contend for the seat in the 2016 local elections after Stork’s current term expires.
Councilwoman Johnson, who teaches at Alma Bryant High School, where Collier graduated last May, nominated Collier for the position. Though he didn’t actually have her in the classroom, Collier said Johnson was very helpful to him his senior year.
“It’s important that we encourage our young people to step forward to learn this process of government,” Johnson said at the meeting. “Austin does this at his school as a leader and in his community as a volunteer, and I believe he’ll do just honor with this position at this time.”
*updated at 5:41 p.m., Feb. 18, to better reflect the nature Debra Marchand and Louis Hard’s departure from the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre.